Blackouts hit Queensland government

March 4, 1998

By Bill Mason

BRISBANE — The Queensland Coalition's electoral stocks plummeted even further in the week beginning February 23, as rolling power blackouts hit Brisbane and regional centres around the state. The blackouts followed unprecedented break downs in generating facilities at four major power stations simultaneously.

Tempers frayed in the hot weather as traffic lights went out at major intersections; raw sewerage poured into streams; and some Brisbane suburbs lost power for up to 20 hours, not the two to three hours promised by the government and its newly corporatised distribution agency, Energex. Energex was formerly SEQEB, the focus of the Bjelke-Petersen government's titanic dispute with power workers in 1985-86.

In a leaflet authorised by a retrenched Swanbank power station worker, six points about the power crisis are outlined:

1. Liberal state treasurer [Joan] Sheldon ripped out $850 million from the Queensland electricity industry last year to balance the state budget.

2. The Borbidge/Sheldon government cancelled the former Labor government's Eastlink connection to the national grid, which would have guaranteed power supply to Queensland. [This point is dubious as the controversial Eastlink project would not have been completed until next year].

3. Six-hundred and forty workers have lost their jobs in the power industry under this government.

4. Most of the 140 power workers who have lost their jobs in Queensland in the past three months were maintenance workers, whose job it was to keep the power stations operating.

5. Job losses and chaos will continue as disruptive restructuring in the electricity industry gains pace.

6. SEQEB has spent about $8 million, not on improvements to the power supply, but simply to change its name to Energex.

Electrical Trades Union assistant secretary Dick Williams said the union had been warning the government for at least six months of an impending power supply disaster because of the new industry structure.

Williams said union members working in the power stations — which have shed about 20% of staff in the last eight months — had predicted that a lack of maintenance and care, and the loss of expertise from the industry, would result in the loss of power generation.

The blackouts in Queensland, together with the power crisis currently devastating Auckland, show the dangers of the process of corporatisation and privatisation occurring throughout the public sector, said Graham Matthews, Democratic Socialist candidate for the seat of Brisbane Central in the upcoming Queensland elections, on February 27.

"So-called 'deregulation' of the power industry has led to chaos wherever it has taken place, including Kennett's Victoria, the National Party's New Zealand and the Coalition's regime here in Queensland", he said. "Leaving power generation to the whims of the market, with consequent cutbacks in investment in maintenance and new facilities, is a road to disaster for the public interest.

The Democratic Socialists are calling for an immediate end to the corporatisation of the Queensland power industry, and for a public inquiry into the future power needs of the state, including investigation of a major expansion in solar and other renewable energy resources.

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